Say Cheeeeeeeeeese…!!!

by Kat Kurylko, Research Assistant
April 13, 2021

Not since the advent of portraiture some 5000 years ago had a new means for capturing likeness been invented, until 1837 and the introduction of the daguerreotype. The first stable and commercially available photographic process, the daguerreotype not only offered people the opportunity to capture an exact likeness of themselves and their loved ones, but the nature and cost of process made it infinitely more accessible for common folk. The process soon revolutionized the way people saw themselves while capturing their world for the first time.

Daguerreotype inventor Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre gradually modified the process, taking the first daguerreotype (a corner of his studio) in 1837. Two years later, Daguerre was offered a yearly pension by the French Government in exchange for donating the process to the public without a patent.

A noteworthy event in one’s life, guidelines on dress and personal presentation when sitting for a daguerreotype were soon established and many considerations went into choosing a portrait-appropriate outfit. While often choosing to wear one’s best clothes, manuals suggested garments that draped well and warned that silks compared to wool of the same shades would appear lighter. Recommendations on color were also given based on a person’s hair tone, white clothing and garments were considered most objectionable.

Initially, daguerreotypes required a 10 minute exposure time, which often led to blurring around a subject’s eyes. But this flaw helped advance the concept and art of postmortem photography. Plagued by high infant and childhood mortality, grieving mid-19th century families took advantage of the new technology to capture their child’s likeness perhaps for the only time, often portrayed in a sleeping position. Early photographs of children were encouraged and, soon after, of young men before being sent to war.

As technology advanced and the photographic processes evolved, later decades witnessed the invention of the calotype, ambrotype, tintype, albumen silver print, and so on. Incrementally, images became more stable and, as exposure time lessened, more clear. Still, daguerreotypes proliferated. Scholars believe that the lack of patent protection aided in the long life of the daguerreotype over other photographic mediums until overwhelmingly inexpensive and convenient new photographic methods saw the daguerreotype fade into history.

Top photo: daguerreotype of Elsey S. Crane from the MCHS Archives

Daguerre, Louis Jacques Mande. Historique et description des procédés du daguerréotype et du diorama. Paris: Lerebours, 1839.

Manthorne, Katherine. Women in the Dark. PA: Schiffler Publishing, Ltd, 2020.

Newhall, Beaumont. The Daguerreotype in America. New York: General Publishing Company, Ltd, 1976.

Robinson, Michael A. “The Techniques and Material: Aesthetics of the Daguerreotypes.” Ph.D. diss. De Montfort University, 2017.

Saretzky, Gary D. “Nineteenth Century New Jersey Photographers,” New Jersey History, 2004.